Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Medieval Manuscripts Illuminate Boston

By Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is always quiet. Even mid-afternoon on a Saturday the crowd was hushed. I stood and looked through the glass at a six-hundred-year-old book. Lines and lines of meticulously hand-painted text covered the pages. I was struck by the sheer amount of work that went into what was before me—and I was only looking at one spread!

Beyond Words is an unprecedented exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Illuminated manuscripts are so named because their pages are “illuminated” with decorations and illustrations, made especially vivid with bright colors and gold leaf accents. The Boston exhibition contains more than 260 manuscripts from 19 local curators and, according to Harvard art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, “will easily be the most ambitious exhibition of illuminated manuscripts ever held in North America.” The exhibition is divided among three locations around Boston, each focusing on a different type of these historic manuscripts.

Italian Renaissance Books—the portion of the exhibition that I was lucky enough to visit—is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum from September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017. This display “explores the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy.” The exhibition delves into how book production changed in the 1400s. At that time, parchment changed to paper, scripts changed to fonts, and illuminated manuscripts changed to black and white ones.

Manuscripts from Church & Cloister is being presented at Harvard University’s Houghton Library from September 12–December 10, 2016. The display focuses on how central books were to medieval monastic life. It displays the detailed texts that were produced in monasteries and convents. The exhibit focuses on how monastic life centered not only on the Bible, but on books in general. The exhibit seeks to convey the monastic reverence for texts and the “survival of classical literature and learning.”

The third part of the exhibition, Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety, is being presented at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art from September 12–December 11, 2016. This exhibit “focuses on lay readership and the place of books in medieval society.” The pieces in this collection are heavily illustrated, demonstrating the focus during the High Middle Ages on the visual and empirical experience.

This exhibition is an unprecedented collaboration between collectors and museums. Beyond Words is an excellent experience for bibliophiles and history buffs alike. If you find yourself in Boston, I definitely recommend going to see these pieces of literary history.

Did You Know?

Paper was not widely used until the late Middle Ages. Instead, parchment was commonly used. Parchment, also called vellum, is made from treated animal skins—oftentimes from cows, sheep or goats. A large book may have required one whole cow skin to make a single page spread. A lengthy manuscript could use the hides of entire herds.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One Hot, STEMing Cup of Coffee

By Eileen Neary
Junior Project Manager 

It’s an alarming pattern—large percentages of engineering students either drop out or switch to another major. Studies suggest a variety of reasons why this behavior has emerged, including the difficulty of the coursework, feeling isolated by peers who are pursuing non-STEM degrees, a lack of mentors or role models and inadequate preparation in high school.

To combat the number of STEM students they’ve seen drop out or change majors after their freshmen year, two engineering professors have come up with a plan to keep their younger students invigorated—and caffeinated.

William Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl are professors and engineers at the University of California Davis. A few years ago, Professor Kuhl had the idea to disassemble a coffeemaker for students in order to display how its designers were able to succeed in brewing quality coffee. The pair quickly realized that coffee making would translate well to teaching engineering. For example, the process of roasting coffee beans involves several investigatable chemical reactions, and the push of hot water through the machine is a result of fluid dynamics.

In 2012, eighteen students attended a seminar called Design of Coffee. Its goal was to serve as “a non-mathematical introduction to chemical engineering.” By 2015, it had become the most popular elective course at the university, with over 1,500 students enrolled. And it’s not hard to see why! While being tasked with creating “the best cup of coffee using the least amount of electrical energy,” students learn about reverse engineering, pH and chemical reactions, mass transfer, and the balance of energy.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of the course, what began as a humble seminar has resulted in the new UC Davis Coffee Center. The plan for the 6,000-square-foot building includes specialized laboratories for studying how water quality, packaging, and bean storage affect the quality of coffee, as well as resources for researching the molecules responsible for the taste of coffee, an experimental sensory lab and much more. With the help of a $250,000 pledge from Peet’s Coffee, the center is planning on further updates and renovations and an inclusion of a Peet’s Coffee Pilot Roastery room. The center is quite an upgrade from the typical classroom.

At the end of the Design of Coffee course, students partake in a blind taste test, and grade their peers’ creations. 

Now there’s a class you can’t sleep through.

Did You Know?
 There is a part of the world known as the “Coffee Belt”—the area between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. This zone is ideal for coffee farming because most coffee beans thrive only within a temperature range of 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

PSG Bookshelf: Staff’s Sci-Fi/Fantasy Favorites

By Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

Some of my fondest high school memories involve Lord of the Rings marathons with my Dungeons & Dragons group, so I guess one could say I’m a fantasy fan. Growing up, I frequently read L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there are several more in the original series, as well as subsequent titles) and Tony Abbott’s Secrets of Droon series. My copy of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon has a cracked spine and a few missing pages from being read over and over. As for sci-fi, I’m a huge fan of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy and have (somewhat shamefully) read my fair share of the Star Wars extended universe titles. In addition to my own interest, it turns out PSG has more than its fair share of sci-fi and fantasy fans.

Eileen’s been reading mostly young adult (YA) sci-fi lately. Some of her favorite authors are James Dashner, author of The Maze Runner, and Rick Yancey, known for The 5th Wave. Annette and Amanda both expressed their love of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, a military sci-fi novel where the people of Earth battle insect-like aliens. Amanda also recommends the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey.

When it comes to the fantasy genre, Colleen could go on all day. She was introduced to fantasy in middle school with Terry Brooks’s Shannara series. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, the King Arthur legend told from Morgan le Fay’s point of view, is another favorite. She’s also been reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series since the books first came out. (One of her dog-eared paperbacks has an old-school fantasy cover depicting Jon Snow on a horse along with his dire wolf companion, Ghost.) Kate also likes Martin’s famous series, but says that she reads for the characters and could do without certain fantastical (i.e., ice zombies) elements.

Don’s a fan of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and is excited for the upcoming Spielberg-directed movie. He also tried reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series as a teenager and wasn’t a huge fan, but recently gave it a second chance and loved all of the books. Alyssa is a long-time fantasy fan, enjoying the works of C. S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Neil Gaiman, Sarah J. Maas and—of course—J. K. Rowling. She also loves Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

Although not all staff members are fans of sci-fi or fantasy, it’s good to see that everyone in the office has different tastes. And now I know where to turn for my next book recommendation!

Did You Know?
J. K. Rowling earns more than $13 million, much of it thanks to her wildly successful Harry Potter series. Print sales, movie rights and the Pottermore website contribute to this amount. Pottermore is the only place a consumer can buy Harry Potter ebooks, and as Rowling owns the ebook rights, she keeps the majority of the profits.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Around the World in 21 Sites: UNESCO's Newest World Heritage Sites

By Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 Intern

The first time I visited one of California’s beautiful redwood parks, I was awed by the massive trees that lined the soft dirt paths of the forest. They towered over me, reaching hundreds of feet into the air, and filled the air with their sweet, woody scent. Of all the places I’ve been to, the California Redwood National and State Parks are among my favorites. Luckily, these redwood forests are protected by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as one of their World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO is an organization dedicated to bringing sustainable peace and cultural appreciation to the world’s nations. One of the ways they work toward their goal is by creating international solidarity through World Heritage Sites. These sites exist to promote understanding and cultural diversity and to preserve places that are important to the world both culturally and as natural landmarks.

In 2016, UNESCO added 21 new locations to its list of World Heritage Sites, bringing the list up to 1,052 total sites. Every World Heritage Site is selected because it meets at least one of ten specific criteria. Of the newly inducted sites, 12 were added based on their cultural value, 6 on their natural value and 3 on both their cultural and natural value.

One of the new sites is the archaeological site of Philippi in northeastern Greece, which was selected for its cultural value. It is the ruin of a walled city that was founded in 356 BCE. The city was heavily influenced by Roman culture following the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE and later by the spread of Christianity around 50 CE.

Another new site, the Revillagigedo Archipelago, selected for its natural value, is a chain of four islands and their surrounding waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islands are the peaks of volcanoes that are part of a larger underwater mountain range. Both the islands and their surrounding waters act as a home for the abundant wildlife in the area.

The Ahwar of southern Iraq, selected for both its cultural and natural values, is comprised of three archeological sites of ancient Sumerian ruins and four wetland marshes surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The site is a “refuge of biodiversity” and includes locations that were once part of ancient Mesopotamian cities.

The full list of newly inducted sites can be viewed here. I’ve already checked off the Redwood National and State Parks from the World Heritage List…who knows, maybe I’ll add a few more checks in my lifetime.

Did You Know?

Currently, Italy and China lead the UNESCO World Heritage List with 51 and 50 sites, respectively. Of these, some of the more well-known sites include the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the (fair) city of Verona, Pompeii, the Great Wall, the site of Xanadu and sections of the Silk Road.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Boston Breathes New Life Into Its Public Library

By Alyssa Guarino
Project Manager 

For Bostonians, the grand, gray structure of the Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Central Branch is an easily recognizable beacon of history and knowledge. In college, I found myself returning often not just to study and riffle through its impressive collection, but also to wander around and wonder at the majesty of the monolithic structure. However, the Central Branch’s Johnson building held much less appeal for me; compared to the Renaissance style and grandeur of other parts of the branch, the Johnson building’s was overshadowed by drab coloring, faded carpets and lack of lighting.

Other patrons and the trustees of the library felt similarly, sparking a $78-million renovation to the Central Branch. The renovation aimed to revamp the Johnson building and put the BPL “on the cutting edge of library services.” This three-year project was split into two phases: the first tackled rooms specifically intended for teens and children; the second refurbished the lower level, first floor, mezzanine and outer parts of the building. Prior to this new undertaking, the last major renovation to the branch was completed in 1971, when architect Phillip Johnson designed his eponymous building.

One hope for the renovation was to coax its younger patrons into more frequent visits. The new Teen Central room and Children’s Library room, opened in February of 2015, now feature bright walls, fun signs and murals, quirky furniture, and even stroller “parking.”

The Central Branch’s recent renovation wasn’t only needed for aesthetic reasons; the building lagged in terms of technology and even accessibility.

But the Johnson building is now better outfitted to continue the digitization work of its enormous inventory of rare books and manuscripts, as well as its special collections, which include the nearly 3,000-volume trove from John Adams’ personal library. The building has also doubled its offering of public computer workstations, and users can now choose between Windows and Mac. Increased accessibility options on computers include CCTV, a braille embosser and a text-to-audio converter. Patrons can even build their skills with tech classes covering computers, tablets and social media.

The library also encourages the flourishing of entrepreneurs with its revamped Rabb Lecture Hall and new Kirstein Business Library & Innovation Center, which offers print and digital resources, innovation-inspiring research space, and even classes and tutorials on the latest software.

The Central Branch has become a friendlier place to explore, starting with its brighter front entrance and cheery welcome center. The expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass panels offers much-needed natural light as well as a view of metropolitan Boylston Street.

The renovation is an engaging and colorful complement to this historic place of higher learning.

Did You Know?
The BPL’s assemblage of 23 million items is not the only impressive collection in the country. The New York Public Library holds over 51 million items, and the Library of Congress boasts over 162 million items!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Aiming for Mobile Accessibility

By Abbrianna MacGregor
Fall 2016 Intern

New technologies are continuously being developed and brought to market. All the better for the public, right? It depends. For leading mobile phone manufacturers, it is crucial to keep all demographics in mind—particularly those with disabilities.

Nearly one in five of the world’s population lives with some kind of recognized disability. My grandma, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, could never operate a mobile phone due to her severe motor dysfunction. She purchased one in case of an emergency, but had to ask her grandchildren to dial the numbers and read the screen for her. For modern technology to avoid becoming an obstacle for many, it must be accessible to those with disabilities. The effort the technology industry is channeling toward this cause is evident.

Mobile operating systems are constantly adapting their technologies to make interacting with their phones a bit easier for people like my grandma. Features such as Siri, Dictation and Voiceover are just a handful of the many tools iOS devices implement to provide headache-free usage for users, regardless of ability. Similarly, many Android devices offer features such as text-to-speech, haptic feedback, adjustable targets on touchscreens and various other attributes that are equally beneficial.

Features like Safari Reader on iOS devices remove visual distractions, thus making it easier for those with attention deficit disorders or autism to focus on one task. Google Chrome for Android offers readability options to remove content such as ads, sidebars and pop-ups from the page. Users can zero in on content without fear of being sidetracked by ads. These features are also helpful to those with visual or motor impairments. Eliminating unwanted content removes the stress from the manual process of exiting out of or avoiding the extra content.

It can be a difficult choice for people with disabilities to find a phone with features best tailored to their needs. The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) has a website that allows users to easily compare varying phone features. These resources can definitely help, but concerns persist despite the recent effort directed at making more accessible products available.

Many place their focus on continually adding new features, but some users with disabilities actually want the opposite. A phone with only basic features would satisfy the needs of many, but they’re becoming increasingly rare. The efforts of major companies and manufacturers are definitely appreciated. Nonetheless, progress must continue for mobile phones to include options that are universally accessible.

Did You Know?

Duke Medicine and Duke University, as part of a new study called Autism & Beyond, have developed an app that utilizes video technology to examine children. The purpose of this mobile technology is to evaluate the emotions and behavior of children between the ages of one and six, and indicate if a child may have autism or mental heath issues.